Is it that sportspeople today are really not bottling (pun unintended) their emotions anymore? Being open about their choices? Like football star Cristiano Ronaldo pushing aside Coke bottles at a press conference at Euro 2020 and choosing water instead. What followed the Ronaldo episode was Paul Pogba, the French footballer pushing Heineken aside at another press conference.
In the world of tennis, several contemporaries have come out in support of Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka when she backed out of giving press conferences at this year’s French Open, citing mental health and self-care. So, is this the age where sportspeople are also looking out for themselves, not succumbing to constant pressure from organisers to be and act a certain way?
Rishabh Kumar, former Maharashtra No. 2 ranked billiard player, says mental health is one of the most prominent problems that people have been facing over a decade.
“From childhood, parents expect too much, want to make their children superhuman; they compare, judge, suppress and take away their children’s innocence at an early age. And down the line we see issues of lack of self-confidence, stage fear, fear of being judged and so on, cropping up among players who are great at the sport but not so great at handling pressure from the media or sports bodies,” says Kumar.
“Many would argue (in the case of Osaka and others) that it is the media that promotes the sport. But sadly, without players there is no sport. One player not complying due to personal reasons should be respected and the show must go on. It shows us that tournament conditions need to be made more conducive for the players,” he says.
A senior executive at a leading sports channel who did not wish to be named spoke about the issue from the perspective of sports bodies and the game. Saying that this is the age where most of us, and that includes sportspeople, are looking out for themselves even more, he adds that self-care has become top priority for most of us.
As far as Osaka and Ronaldo are concerned, the executive adds, “Informing beforehand about a decision is superb, which is what Osaka did. But what Ronaldo did was just out of the blue. Osaka did the right thing, but not Ronaldo. Sports runs because of sponsorships and it should have been flagged off by Ronaldo beforehand (that he didn’t want Coke there), and perhaps the bottles wouldn’t have been placed where they were.”
As we adjudge the issue from both standpoints, it seems that misgivings about the other can be sorted out by greater consultation with players and by not tabooing mental health anymore. Osaka said in a Twitter post that she felt the rules were outdated. She also spoke about having social anxiety.
“Anyone who knows me knows that I’m introverted, and anyone that has seen me in tournaments will notice that I’m always wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety. Though the tennis press has always been kind to me, I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media. I get really nervous and find it stressful to always try to engage and give you the best answers,” she had tweeted.
Psychologist Shrradha Sidhwani opinies that it’s been a difficult year for sports. Players lost their identities in the pandemic, not being able to play anymore. “Now that everything is opening up slowly, sports stars are having to redefine themselves, and decide what is healthy for them and what is unhealthy. They are asking themselves: Do I need the social validation? Do I need to do this to my body?”
Chennai-based sports enthusiast Hemendra Shah says only big players can snub sponsors and get away with it. “A players ranked at 100 may not be able to do so. For me, what Ronaldo drinks will not affect what I drink. I will stick to my own choices. If players decide to make certain choices, they also have to live with the consequences,” says Shah.
There is certainly an “emergent narrative on health” prevalent today. New and different conversations have begun since the pandemic, focussing on the very real concerns of today. Kumar says, “Young teens who haven’t ventured out much in the real world, when they become successful, they don’t know what to do next and that might depress them. The system needs to be changed and the education system revamped. Much of the learning material isn’t applicable in the real world and rivalry has become an innate feature recurring across platforms. Schools give us facts and information, but real education is about life itself.”
Big or small, sports stars aren’t shying away from introducing a bit of their own personalities at tournaments, not thinking about consequences like Shah puts it.
Dr Janki Deole, a sports psychologist, who has been counselling sports players for over a decade, tells us about how the mental health of a sports player is a difficult concept for people to understand. “That is why the hue and cry when Osaka backed out of giving press conferences at the French Open. The subject is abstract for others. Osaka did what was good for her, which was the right thing. But at the same time players must understand what comes along with participating in a professional tournament, and need to mentally equip themselves to meet the challenges of a tournament.”